|In these unprecedented times, parents and children have become quite familiar with the sudden reality of not being able to go to school or interact with their teachers. Furthermore, there are growing concerns that children are falling behind in their learning and a cadre of children may never catch up. For so many children in rural and marginalized communities in Africa, inconsistent schooling has a negative effect on their future.|
Education is a driver of social mobility. Even though parents in Europe and North America are now experiencing children not in school, this phenomenon is a reality for so many families in Africa. The desire of every parent is for their children to be healthy, to mentally thrive, and eventually support their families as adults. Children have their own ambitious and achievable goals that they want to pursue, and it is critical that they are set up for success. One of the most cost-effective ways of helping both parents and children realize their ambitions is ending the burden of parasitic worm infections for these young men and women. Research has shown that ending these diseases can increase a child’s school attendance, which allows them to have better opportunities in the long term and significantly earn more.
In recognition of the second annual World NTD Day we reflect back on the fight against intestinal worms, which affect more than 1.5 billion people globally. School aged children are the most predominantly affected in Africa. Students that are affected by intestinal worms fall behind in their basic education. Even if children burdened by intestinal worms are able to attend school, they often feel lethargic and are unable to master key competencies.
In our efforts to create a more fair and equitable world, the END Fund – the only private philanthropic initiative aimed at ending the five most prevalent NTDs – supports mass drug administration campaigns to treat and prevent infection from parasitic worms. During these campaigns, children take a safe and effective medication which gets rid of existing parasitic infections. Reaching these children involves a collaborative cross-sector approach that leverages on pharmaceutical companies donating medications through the World Health Organization. Public health organizations like the END Fund are able to channel these generous donations and work alongside ministries of health, ministries of education, and other local implementing partners to reach children in schools for as little as $0.50 cents per child per year. This extraordinarily low cost intervention has been highlighted by the World Health Organization, US Government, UK Government as well as philanthropists, as being a ‘best buy in public health’ because of the huge health, educational, and economic benefits.
For more than ten years, the END Fund has worked with the Government of Rwanda on nationwide deworming of children. At the beginning, our joint aim was to regularly treat all school children. Once this was successfully in place, we set our goals higher to eliminate these diseases so that children would not miss school because of sickness. More recently, we are partnering with the government to not only eliminate any parasitic infections in children, but also in adults.
There are many countries in Africa where we want to achieve the same result. We are currently working in more than 25 countries. In 2019 alone, we worked with local implementing partners to deliver more than 196 million treatments. Although there is still a long way to go, our work in Rwanda shows that it can be done. Years ago, it was a fairly bold endeavour to scale up nationwide deworming of children, and reaching the point of complete elimination was still a distant ambition. Today, thanks to the commitments of the Rwandan government, pharmaceutical companies, global philanthropists, and the private sector, that goal is within sight.
When we asked school teachers in Rwanda about their students’ experience with deworming, they enthusiastically alluded to higher school attendance records, more focused attention, and much more energy at school. In Western Kenya, a Harvard research study of schools revealed that treating parasite infections by mass drug administration programs can improve school attendance by 25%. The same study showed that over time, NTD treatments can also increase an adult’s earning potential by 20%.
To demonstrate the economic impact of such a low cost health program at a national scale, we recently commissioned research by the Economist Intelligence Unit to estimate the long term economic benefit to Rwanda if the goal of eliminating sickness from worms was achieved. Their assessment indicates that the economic benefit of ending parasitic worms in Rwanda is over $400 million USD. Rwanda is on the verge of reaching this goal and so the benefit is very tangible as we write on World NTD Day.
Deworming medication can be administered not only by community health workers and teachers, but also by mothers. In our pursuit to see an end to worm infections, we invite you to join us in ending the neglect so that children can attend and enjoy school, and eventually become great leaders
The writer is the Programs Consultant, the END Fund